Kristy Anne Cox (KC): Hi, Jaymee, thank you so much for being willing to talk with me! I'd like to start by letting our readers know more about you and your work. Could you share a little about yourself with us?
Jaymee Goh (JG): There is not much to say! I'm a science fiction writer, poet, editor, and academic. ("Science fiction" is a modifying noun phrase for that string of nouns.) I’m best known as the steampunk postcolonialist, writing on using steampunk for postcolonial purposes on my blog, Silver Goggles. I’ve edited two steampunk anthologies, and my third anthology is on a concept I've termed "trials by whiteness." I’m a Malaysian national of Chinese descent (my family name, Goh, is the Hokkien "Wu"). I’ve gone from a BA in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to an MA in Hamilton, Ontario, and westwards to a PhD in Riverside, California. I like to joke to a friend, "Eric, you must remember, I am a foreigner to these lands!"
KC: How has living away from home shaped your writing? How about your experiences growing up in a multilingual environment?
JG: Living away from home was one of the best things for my writing, as it gave me time on my own to mature and have new experiences. Being far away also made me think carefully about how my upbringing and culture shaped my priorities and values. But I feel I might have come into the writing I did anyway because the key thing that really shaped my writing was RaceFail, and since that happened on the Internet, it might have come through anyway. I wasn't especially self-aware at the time it was happening, and it jolted me into paying attention to my writing. But on the flip side, I got into blogging because I got into modeling, through some coincidence of life, so if I had not moved far away, that might not have happened.
Growing up around different languages, despite being mostly monolingual, has given me an ear for the cadences of how different people sound like. I'm predominantly monolingual—I grew up speaking and reading English, because my parents don't share the same dialect, and spoke English better than Malay. With a combination of attending a private school, going to Singapore when I was eight, and being surrounded by English-language books and media, my strongest language is English. I can nominally understand Malay because I attended a national school for most of my schooling years. I also know a little Cantonese. I heard Hokkien, Mandarin, and Hainanese, growing up with a large extended family, and of course, since it's Malaysia, you can't help but hear Tamil as well, and a range of Malay accents.
I try to describe these sounds sometimes in my writing, but it's a challenge to render them in text. There's also the fact that I don't necessarily speak these basilects in any marked way. What comes out my mouth is generally standard English, even if sometimes you can hear the accent.
KC: Your bibliography includes an ever-growing list of short fiction, essays, poetry, and editing work, as well as your master's thesis, Chromatic Chronologies: Using The Steampunk Aesthetic For Postcolonial Purposes. How would you characterize your work? What kinds of writing projects attract your interest?
JG: Characterizing my work—I feel like that would be a job for a critic to do. My interests are ever changing. However, I do consistently think about alternate histories, relationships ("disappointing children" appears to be a theme across a lot of my fiction), and utopias. In that same vein, I'm interested in community-building, intergenerational knowledge, and navigating the difficult negotiations of ethics and politesse. Like any good science fiction writer, I'm interested in the embodiment of concepts. On a larger scale, I try to bring my studies on postcolonial theory into my fiction, using fiction to explore what it looks like in everyday life. I am hoping to expand into translation and transnationalism once my PhD is done.
My academic research has focused on whiteness, because I find the behaviours and viewpoints of whiteness—and by extension the behaviours of oppressor groups—obvious yet under-discussed. (Also, after several years of championing multiculturalism in steampunk only to see it being hijacked by white people, I decided I needed to look into why that was so.) It's not a thing we want to identify very closely. Recently I was invited to edit the WisCon Chronicles, an anthology series that tries to encapsulate the conversations that happen at WisCon. I decided to take a chance to blow open a conversation on whiteness, its effects and consequences, and its many valences, and themed my volume "Trials by Whiteness."
KC: It seems like whiteness is not only a difficult subject for some people to discuss, but also one that many struggle to understand. Do you have a foundational work on the subject you recommend to newcomers to the topic?
JG: It is difficult because it requires an acknowledgement of complicity in a system of oppression to understand the subject, and to grapple with it meaningfully in order for action to follow. Robin DiAngelo's article "White Fragility" addresses this "lack of psychological stamina in discussions of race," which is the major barrier white people have in understanding racism. The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger is also a key text. "Black Matters" by Toni Morrison helped a lot in reframing my perspective on "minority literature."
KC: Any plans to write an academic book on the subject?
JG: No, I think I will be done with white people after my dissertation.
KC: Could you expand a little on what you mean by "navigating the difficult negotiations of ethics and politesse"?
JG: There's being good, and there's being nice. Ethics is the decision-making process of what makes a choice right, or good, how it affects other people negatively or positively in the short or long run. Politesse, or politeness, is about being nice, friendly, and courteous, so that you make the other person as comfortable as possible. These are important things in a society, especially in a society in which many people live, and have to learn how to share space as comfortably as possible.
However, when addressing questions of oppression, which are questions of ethics, we so often bump up against questions of politeness. What is polite for one group is not polite to another. And sometimes what is necessary in order to achieve an ethical goal must necessarily refuse the rules of politeness. But sometimes the rules of politeness are there specifically in order to cultivate community and coalition practices that enable ethical goals.
KC: What are your favorite kinds of stories to read, write, and edit? Do they vary?
JG: I read quite solidly in the romance, fantasy, and social science fiction genres. I loved David and Leigh Eddings in my teens, and I really love books that put thought into the spectrum of hierarchies. I also enjoy stories that think through power dynamics and how they affect interactions between people. Sometimes, though, I like fluffy stories about people falling in love and the dramedy surrounding that. (And loving small-town environments!) I secretly like quest fantasies, that D&D party kind, but well-written ones are hard to find. I also secretly like towering castles with brooding princes, but those are stories which have much cause to go wrong and I figure there are better books to spend my time on. I hate wasting time on a book I don't enjoy.
I tend to write stories that I would like to read. (This includes fluffy stories about people falling in love.) Similarly, I like to edit stories that I would like to read. The Sea Is Ours was an effort to find stories I would like to read. I have a ton of anthology ideas which have great novelty/niche value but have opportunities for a wide variety of stories. Unfortunately, anthologies don’t tend to sell well.
KC: I'd love to see more well-written quest fantasies with brooding princes, towering castles, and fluffy romance. I hope you write some for us.
JG: I'll put "brooding prince on towering castles" in the queue after the steampunk romance novel, the pseudo-Asian fantasy romance quartet, the Malay steampunk fantasy trilogy, and far-future semi-vampire novel.
KC: Do you have a favorite piece so far that you've published?
JG: I'm very proud of the stories my dad has read and liked, like "Lunar Year’s End" and "Liminal Grid." "A Name to Ashes" in Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History is a strong contender, because I struggled really hard to find the emotional core for a story about what was a very difficult history of research. My bilingual poem, "Brother," is also a piece I think about a lot, mostly because I don't know if I could perform it very well.
KC: Your short story "Crocodile Tears" draws on folklore from back home, is that right? Could you tell us a little about those stories and why you were drawn to them? Do you have any more folklore-influenced pieces in mind?
JG: "Crocodile Tears" is drawn from two folktales, one I read in a book as a child, and another that’s kind of an oral tale that everyone basically knows. The piece as it is, is a meditation on the nature of forgiveness. I also like talking crocodiles as a concept, and wanted to explore the term "crocodile tears" a bit more.
The tale of the old woman and the crocodiles ends with the crocodiles leaving the river: it's an origin story that explains a phenomenon (namely, why a river has no crocodiles in a region known for them). While researching for another paper (probably something to do with Hannah Arendt's interpretation of Jesus of Nazereth's teaching of forgiveness), I read a philosophical article about redemption. A couple whose daughter had been murdered by a group of men forgave the killers. Two of the men approached them after they had been released from prison, and they took up what the daughter had done which helped the couple in their work (something humanitarian). So where they had taken a life, they did their best to replace it with their own.
The tale of Si Tenggang is of a young man who goes out to seek his fortune, forgets his roots, disrespects his mother, and is punished for doing so. The modern impulse, I feel, is to try to redeem Si Tenggang and try to explain why he treated his mother—and by extension, the elders of his village—the way he did. (Muhammad Haji Salleh's "Si Tenggang’s Homecoming," which does this, twigged me for a long time. I still have my issues with it, but it's a meaty poem nonetheless.) There's a lot going on with the original story regarding class differences, the refusal to acknowledge women's labor and power, and filial piety. There's a lot to criticize, depending on the re-telling. But I thought a lot about Si Tenggang's mother (who curses him in the original story), who is abandoned, who probably dies alone, like the grandmother in the other story.
I don't have any other folktale-oriented stories in the pipeline right now, but chances are I'll think of something in the future.
KC: Well, I hope you do. "Crocodile Tears" is excellent.
JG: Thank you. If you liked it, you might try reading "Anak Sungai" over at Truancy, which also has a crocodile, and in September, I'll have a short story set in the Chinese underworld.
KC: Tell us about your writing process. How do you go about getting your writing done?
JG: These days, I write out a paragraph summary of what the story is about. I think and think about how the story will play out, trying to decide on the best outcome and mentally exploring the characters' options and personalities. Once I'm clear on a beginning, middle, and end, I sit down, often when I'm procrastinating on something else, and try to write a full draft in a sitting. Then I figure out what to tweak about it from there.
There have been stories where I think I know where I'm going, but it doesn't work. I shelve those for later. There're also stories where I don’t know where I'm doing, and I just write it anyway.
KC: How defined are these beginnings, middles, and ends in your mind before you sit down to write?
JG: Sometimes they are very well-defined. Sometimes I know how it ends, but not really how it begins. Sometimes I have a moment in the middle I really like but I have nothing to wrap around it. I used to have the awful problem where I would start writing because I thought of a good beginning. As I wrote further, I'd think of the middle. By the time I got to writing the middle, I'd be thinking of the ending, and that was it—my brain would sort of register it as the end of the project and I'd lose motivation to write it, even though the whole thing wasn't even done yet! I had to start thinking in terms of the writing process, not just the brainstorming process.
KC: How many revisions or drafts do you usually go through on a story? Would you mind telling us a little about your revision process?
JG: It can depend on the length of the project. When I embarked on writing a novel, I thoroughly outlined it as much as possible, editing it as much as possible until I was happy with the way the story unfolded. I still give it reading passes trying to identify where to strengthen it. It has probably gone through three superficial passes, and will go through a major overhaul once I have the time. Which may be never, but hope springs eternal.
Short stories often get written out at once in a single sitting, like "Crocodile Tears," which only needed a few superficial changes. I may change things up after, especially if I have had some feedback or further ideas. "Liminal Grid" had about three or four passes, both independently and then editorially.
I often try to give as much space as possible between revisions. My poetry especially tends to have these fallow periods where I draft something, go away for a week, come back, and tweak it further.
KC: When do you first let someone else read a story in progress? Do you use a writing group at all?
JG: I generally let someone read a story after I feel the draft is about done. Usually it's a Malaysian story, which I send to a fellow Malaysian, to see if they feel they understand what's going on in it. My Clarion cohort has continued to workshop once a month, which I have yet to take advantage of because I've been focused on my dissertation.
KC: What is the biggest obstacle you've faced in your writing?
JG: Give me a moment to put on my best dramatic pose and cry, "That thief called tiiiiiiiiiiiime!" Then give me another moment to put on my best mournful face and lament, "the illness called depressiiiiiiooonnnnnn!"
KC: I think many of us can identify with that. Any time budgeting tips for writers trying to balance school, work, a life, and writing? Do you write at a set time each day, or anything like that?
JG: Delia Sherman has a strict 40-minutes-a-day schedule. I personally am most productive in the mornings and evenings, but have been able to do afternoons recently. I do try to identify a place to go to where I can sit and write for at least an hour.
In early days of grad school, I found I needed to set a day aside called my Fukitol Day. It's a day when I don't do any school work. I'll do housework, creative writing, leisure, whatever, just no grad work. Now, because I have a lot of other commitments (I'm also involved in student governance, and I firmly believe in university community spirit), I have to make decisions on priorities. Often the creative writing comes last. But my creative writing does follow me wherever I go, so it's not really that much of a tragedy.
KC: A lot of us in the writing community struggle with mental illnesses like depression. Do you have any advice for writers who have depression or anxiety? How do you manage to write on the bad days?
JG: I don't write.
I just don't. I've come a long way in learning to accept my mental illness as a condition of my life, and being able to accept that I can't will it away. Trying to work against it just hurt me: I need to write → I can't write because depressed → I feel guilty because I can't write → I get more depressed because I need to write but can't... this is a frustrating and unproductive process. I make bargains with myself: what can I do today? Can I do this one thing? Can I read this one page? Can I write one hundred words? Yes? No? What about that other thing? Do I need to be around people to do this thing? (I've had some luck writing with other people.)
Giving myself things to do in small increments has been so vital in getting to an emotional headspace where I can slowly get away from the depression fog. Being able to forgive myself for not being able to write has also been important. It's not my fault I have depression. And it's not like "the depression" is "stopping me" from writing—the depression is not separate from me. It isn't a separate thing from me. It's simply a condition in which I cannot write, like when I have a horrid flu and should stay in bed. Even brains need to sleep in sometimes. Just depressive brains need it more often than not. I don't think we should make ourselves feel horrible about it, and other people don't need to make us feel horrible about it either.
KC: What has been your process of learning to write?
JG: Like most other writers, it has been a process of reading and writing. The reading, I've slowly realized, has to be a conscious process, and that's something I've been trying to teach my students. Being aware of what is happening in a text, how it is put together, and what effect those elements have as a result is something I've had to cultivate as a thing I do, rather than something I just internalize.
I've also just experimented with stuff I thought might be interesting, just to see if I could do it. It's had varying levels of success. I saw people write a triptych and wondered if I could pull it off. I usually can't write less than 6000 words for short fiction, and challenged myself to flash fiction as a result.
KC: What about MFA programs or workshop opportunities like Clarion?
JG: I did a creative writing minor in my undergrad, which turned me off from writing anything that wasn't fan fiction for a while. I wanted to do a creative project for my MA, but that didn't work out. MFA programs, I imagine, would vary the same way: whether your writing would thrive there or not depends on whether you will find support for the type of writing you do. I've been fortunate that my writing career came out of the corners of fandom, which I think is a far more robust community for the kind of writing I do—that fantasy and fluffy romance stuff. But my professor did set an assignment to buy a literary magazine and bring a short story from it into class, which got me paying attention to magazine stands. That's where I found the science fiction and fantasy magazines which I grew to enjoy, and Googling for more, I found the online zines. (This would lead me to discover a café upstairs from a newspaper/magazine shop, where I would go on to spend many happy writing hours. My writing life has generally been a result of weird serendipitous moments.)
Clarion and Clarion West are genre-specific workshops, and also form-specific: short fiction. They also presuppose a familiarity with writing processes. And the things one learns in these workshops depend on the instructors they have brought in for the year, and your classmates. If you have novelists among the instructors, then you get to pick their brains about it, since these are full-residency workshops. Since they are also very competitive to get into, you're going into a space where you have peers who themselves are also good writers. It can become a space of camaraderie or competition, depending on your cohort.
I did learn a great deal from Clarion in improving my craft, but it wasn't a place where I learned how to write. Clarion was the place where I got to challenge myself, inspired by my peers and instructors, to push my writing to the next level. As a full-residency workshop with no other responsibilities besides writing, I also treated it as an educational retreat. My lessons there were more on how to experiment with my writing, how to cohere with other writers, how to maintain momentum and discipline, and how to take care of others. And it helps that since other people are there also writing excellent fiction, there's a great deal of wonderful writing to read and absorb! And gosh, my cohort, my heart, my cohort, my heart.
There are many reasons to want to do an MFA or a writing workshop like Clarion. Some people just want the dedicated time to devote to craft. Some people want the credentials (which you need if you want to teach it at college level). Some people want the community. All fantastic reasons. But by and large, I firmly believe that you don't need these to learn how to write.
KC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JG: The basics are: read, write, and submit. The next cliché is: keep your day job. (I'm still looking for one, myself.)
One thing I wish more people knew, though, was: talk to your elders in the industry. There are a lot of things to learn about how the industry works, and it's very easy to think one knows it all just by observing from the outside. But I've seen folks discouraged because they think the one person they know is influential enough to provide all the answers. I've been very blessed to have had the opportunities to meet elders who could give me straight talk. Sometimes their information is out-of-date because they're of a different generation, but often it's so calming just to be able to hear their own writing struggles and how they've overcome those.
It's very intimidating to glom onto industry professionals: they're so grown! So pro! So busy and important! So cool! Nobody wants to waste their time. Plus, it makes you look like an attention-grabbing, smarmy brownnoser! (I don't know many people who would put it that way, but I feel like this might be at the core of how some people feel.) I think we forget that they're there to help the industry grow and become better, which means taking time to get to know new writers and teaching them, however indirectly, about the market's expectations.
There's no harm in just asking a quick question, or for a moment of their time. The worst thing that can happen is that they say "no," and such practice in receiving rejection is a good thing for when one starts trying to sell stories!
KC: That's great advice. How do you deal with rejection?
JG: I would say, "pretty well." The worst rejection I've had to deal with was for an academic fellowship, because it feels that with these fellowships one's method of work is under judgment. And academic work can be very personal—for me it very much is! The fellowship was also for research that I believed in, and that I thought I was doing, so it was a shock to my system to not get the fellowship, like my work was not valid for it. I felt failed by the institution as a result, and I felt I had failed my project itself, and I just about crumbled. I generally do not burst out crying in my office, but that was a dark time.
My first ever fiction rejection was, in hindsight, one that had to happen. I had submitted a piece that I considered very personal, without having read any of the fiction that the market published. I knew no writers, knew nothing about selling fiction. The rejection put me off submitting for many years. I turned to fan fiction for solace. It was when I got involved in fandom, and got to meet other writers, that I thought about submitting again. This time, I was smart about it and read other writers on the process on submitting, and corresponding, which includes the dos-and-don'ts of how to respond to rejections. And I've been dealing with rejection fairly decently since.
I think the commodified nature of genre fiction helps with this, psychologically speaking: you, the writer, are selling a product. The editor, the buyer, has parameters, however arbitrary, for what product they want to curate for the market they sell to. If you are rejected, your product simply does not fit those parameters. You can try another market, like another anthology. Or, in the case of a magazine, you can also try selling them another product. It helps that I am also constantly pushing out short story ideas, so I'm not invested in selling a single story, unlike a dissertation which is a fairly singular project. (It probably also helps that I am not paying to submit.) It can be frustrating to have a story that keeps getting close to acceptance, and the personal rejections keep coming in with no acceptances, which has happened to me, so having multiple stories being sent out helps a lot with that.
I've mentioned speaking to elders before, and that also helps with rejection, because elders have also been through the process! Sometimes they are still being rejected. I remind myself, if they are older and more talented than you, and still get rejected, why, grasshopper, you have barely begun! Would I like to sell more work? Sure. Which just means I need to write and submit more! That is what they have done, and that is what I shall do, and what complaint can I make about an excuse to write more, a thing which I love to do?
KC: Do you have any work eligible for nomination for awards this year? Where can our readers find your work?
JG: In 2017, I'll have a short story coming out in Sunvault: An Anthology of Solarpunk and Eco-fiction, and in September, a story from Lightspeed Magazine. I have reviews, fiction, and poetry in Strange Horizons, fiction in Lightspeed Magazine, and Interfictions Online, poetry in Stone Telling.
KC: Both your master's thesis and your critical introduction to the short story collection The Sea is Ours seem to speak to the need for more anti-colonial literature that is written by, inclusive of, and not marginalizing of Asian peoples, as well as anti-colonial literature written by, inclusive of, and not marginalizing of the wide array of (often marginalized) identities in the world today. Would you say that's accurate? Could you tell us a little more about your feelings on this need and what writers and others in the industry can best do to help address it?
JG: I don't know about speaking to a need, but it definitely responds to a conversation that identified this in the Anglophone market. I grew up in an interesting media context whereby I could find people who looked like me—in Chinese films—and to a certain extent shared a similar language and culture with me, but ultimately, were not that much like me, an Anglophone Malaysian diasporado (to borrow my friend Chris Chinn's term). I also grew up watching Malay and Tamil films, and in the cinema, there are subtitles all the time: often a line in Malay, a line in English, a line in Chinese, and occasionally a line in Tamil. The combination depends on the film playing and its format: a Malay film and series wouldn't get subtitles; a Chinese film would get Malay, English, and Mandarin subtitles; a Tamil film might get only Malay subtitles; most non-Malay TV series would get a Malay translation, etc.
So when you say "marginalized identities in the world today," I think we need to qualify that such identities are marginalized only in certain regions, and in certain industries. I did not grow up hungry for representation in mass media the same way that many of my Asian American and Asian Canadian friends have. But in Anglophone literature specifically? Then yes, I was certainly unaware of the possibilities of using English to write stories that better reflected my own experiences. I was like Chimamanda Adichie, writing about English children playing in snow. In my case, I was writing about me and my friends with English names being transported to the lands of unicorns, but I digress. I did have some projects that involved being Malaysian, being Malaysian-Chinese, but they were either realist fiction (which I do not really like) or they struck me as rather silly, narcissistic, and not universal enough to bother with. It took me a long time to realize that this was a faulty perception preventing me from producing really good work.
I think we're on a brilliant, if difficult, path of talking through this problem, and many of the problems are institutional: publishers and distributors don't really throw their weight behind marginalized writers. There's a lot of anxiety about whether a book will sell, and how to sell it. There are conversations to be had about writer expectations, and reader expectations. I am a huge fan of independent publishers, such as Small Beer Press and Rosarium, who are more likely to take such risks, being so small, but it's still a numbers game for them.
An interesting trend is the rise of the public as patron. We've seen this shift before (albeit on a slower scale), where patronage used to come from wealthy elite individuals paying artists for their work. This became a lot more democratized when writers found a larger audience for their work in the public sphere, through the rise of a publishing industry. Now, writers can cut out that middleman and offer their work directly to readers on platforms such as Wattpad, Patreon, and so forth, or even just their own websites, and having the readers reward them as they see fit, through PayPal donations or such-like. Instead of single wealthy patrons, they're supported through crowdfunded means. A huge part of it is hinged on the biases that institutional publishing has demonstrated towards minority writers, and the complexities of navigating those biases and expectations.
It does take time for the reader to look for these creators. It needs for readers to be vocal about the things and writers they love. To actively want to promote it. Bookselling is a labour of love—being visible about our love goes far.
KC: You referred to Chimamanda Adichie's "The Danger of a Single Story" talk in the context of your experiences of feeling left out of certain types of stories. I'd recommend watching this TED talk for anyone interested in the topics of this interview. I think this desire—the desire to both tell more than one kind of story and to support the telling of more than one story—is a big force behind both the #OwnVoices movement and the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement.
JG: It is less about "feeling left out" of certain types of stories, and more just not considering that certain types of stories could have people like me in the first place. That one takes for granted that certain types of stories call for certain types of characters. I didn't feel left out—I took for granted that I could read myself into the shoes of white male heroes, because we're supposed to take the white male hero for granted, the default experience of everyone. Because there are so many types of white male heroes, it's quite easy to pick one to slip into. But clearly this empathy doesn't work the other way. I was surrounded by media in which I could see people who looked like me, so I was unaware that people who looked like me didn't show up in other kinds of media where they may be important too. I didn't long for things I didn't know I could have in the first place, and years ago I probably would have dismissed any such longing as irrelevant.
But with the rise of social media, globalization, and the ability to exchange information so easily and quickly, we are slowly becoming aware of what we could have. Our vistas are opening out, and as consumers and producers we have come to realize that we could demand more. We recognize the longing as a valid need.
KC: Which segues to my next question. #WeNeedDiverseBooks presents the need for books by and about diverse human beings as a moral imperative. That said, there has been an ongoing and sometimes heated debate in the writing community about cultural appropriation in writing, and about who can/can't, or should/shouldn't write about real-world cultures or identities they are not a part of. Speeches. Articles. Social media threads. Websites. Some have argued that we are headed for an oversensitive publishing environment where writers can only write about characters that match the writer's lived identities and experiences. Others argue that anyone can write about anyone. Of course, the majority of articles and writing resources out there fall somewhere between those two extremes. Because people are having trouble settling even on a definition of cultural appropriation or misappropriation, I've personally found it useful to think of this complex constellation of issues in terms of harmful, mutually beneficial, neutral, or "it's complicated" intercultural exchanges. I'd of course like to direct readers to your Silver Goggles website as a valuable resource. Do you have any thoughts on these matters that you'd like to share with us here?
JG: The argument about oversensitivity is essentially an anxiety of the corrective nature of criticism. Such criticisms and "oversensitivities" have always existed, but never had a chance to be expressed until the rise of social media and websites, wherein people are now open to public commentary. Careless bigotry, once safe in closed forums, travels easily.
The idea that writers can only write about characters that match the writer's lived experiences is a reality and a straw man. It's a reality because lots of white writers are writing stories about very white towns based on their own white experiences. But it's also a straw man because no one ever told these white writers off for writing what they know. Marginalized writers, however, are judged all the time for their authenticity in representing their lived experiences in ways that don't fit stereotypes. I find it difficult to imagine a situation in which a white writer is told, "I feel that Becky is reacting unrealistically to the criticism from her boss in this scene. She's too stoic, and white women are supposed to be more fragile than that. Also, if this is a white suburban town, then it's not coming through. You should add more sensory details that would really tell the reader where we are, like white picket fences, and mac and cheese."
On the flip side, in the genre side of the industry, writers have been writing for a long time about things that are quite definitely not part of their lived experiences—about elves and vampires and dragons and fake brooding princes in fake high castles. What the hell does the average bourgeoisie white writer know about being a kidnapped princess, through lived experience? What did I know about snow and horses and magic spells and grassy knolls, growing up in suburban Malaysia? Nothing and nothing. The point of imagination is to extrapolate using information available to us. My available information was from Tolkien, which is not saying much.
The crux of cultural appropriation isn't really about any of that. The crux of cultural appropriation is about power and the ability to represent one's own community in a space where one's own community is misrepresented and is actively oppressed as a result of that misrepresentation. It's about what kind of information fuels our imaginations, and what kind of imaginaries go on to inform our readers about the kinds of people we are depicting in our work.
People do not "have trouble settling on a definition of cultural appropriation." We say this sort of thing because we would like a definition that allows for an abdication of responsibility. Consider how folks define racism as a set of behaviours and prejudices, "according to the dictionary": it's not really an accurate portrait of racism, because it barely touches on institutional and unconscious biases, but it's a useful one, because it allows all kinds of wiggle-room for anybody who doesn’t want to confront how they're complicit as racists.
Scholars of anthropology, cultural studies, media studies, and critical race theory have defined cultural appropriation a long time ago. It's just that it's complicated, being comprised of a series of processes, and not easy to digest into an easy sound bite that allows people to get out of it (and often instead makes everyone look bad). So we say "oh, it’s hard to define." I personally default to the version I read in Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's book, Unthinking Eurocentrism: "The West, as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett puts it, 'separates forms from their performers, converts those forms into influences, brings those influences into the center, leaves the living sources on the margin, and pats itself on the back for being so cosmopolitan.'" This was in 1991! I copy-paste this all the time because it's the closest thing I'll ever see to a sound bite about cultural appropriation, but look at how many clauses are in that sentences. Anyway, considering these processes, it's easy to see that it's not just "the West" that does this—any elite class would do this.
Anybody is capable of participating in any of these processes. Most of us who like to think of ourselves as worldly, as well-traveled, as knowledgeable, are probably guilty to some degree of participating in one or more of these processes. I have certainly lifted forms from their original performers before, for my fiction. I have certainly had moments where I did not acknowledge the marginalized living sources of my materials. I certainly have thought that I'm hot shit for being so worldly-wise and so smart, so original in the permutations I have used. And I have certainly profited to some degree! However, to acknowledge all this is to acknowledge that I'm not ideologically pure, that I, too, am a problematic fave. To acknowledge all this is to acknowledge that I have to work to make sure that these processes are somehow mitigated through other actions of mine, because ultimately, these are not politically neutral processes, and cannot be, within a world in which inequality is a condition.
KC: OK, I'd like to unpack this statement: "The crux of cultural appropriation is about power and the ability to represent one's own community in a space where one's own community is misrepresented and is actively oppressed as a result of that misrepresentation." So, a writer who writes characters from an oppressed community could try to open space for members of that community rather than taking their spaces. If they publish a book about another community, they use the success (if any) of their work to direct attention towards the work of artists within the community. Or by engaging with the work of the community as a student and an ally, without derailing it or distracting from it. Or by helping promote the work of artists in the community and introducing new writers from that community to other writers, agents, editors, and the like. Does that sound about right?
JG: Yes. It is an emotional labour that doesn't often get taken on, so it becomes a surprise when it happens. Consider Rick Riordan starting a publishing imprint for multicultural fiction, using his fame and money that he earned from the Percy Jackson series to do so. He doesn't make a big deal out of it; he just does it.
KC: It also sounds like "the ability to represent one's own community" also means outsider writers need to defer to members of the community on matters of representation, and to be careful not to try to represent someone else's community at panels, in interviews, or in writing. Basically, a cis white woman could do the research work and get the sensitivity readers and proceed to write an excellent book about a trans Latina. But it's best if her book engages a trans woman as a worthy and interesting heroine rather than focusing on the transness of the character or the unique and painful issues the trans community faces.
JG: Yes. I believe it's called "good writing." Not all books about trans women have to be about their transness—of course their transness is going to be important to their characterization within the story, but it shouldn't always be the main focus. There's space for stories in which trans women go kill dragons without their transness getting in the way, and stories in which their transness is key to killing dragons.
KC: Furthermore, it sounds like writers really need to understand how the community they are engaging with is being and has been misrepresented, and the damage that those misrepresentations continue to do to that community. And a good place to start is reading what members of that community have already written on the matter.
JG: And to take what has been said to heart.
KC: As a reader and writer of fantasy, I'd love to see more worlds and stories that are inspired by a much wider array of real-world cultures. Let's say a writer wants to draw inspiration from indigenous South American cultures in much the same way that Lord of the Rings draws inspiration from Celtic and Norse cultures. In an entirely invented world that merely "feels like" a "magical ancient Peru," can the writer avoid Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s separation and marginalization? Can they avoid cherry-picking out the kinds of cultural elements that, devoid of context, become problematic?
JG: Let us say I, a non-white writer, who is definitely not Peruvian, wanted to write something that feels like "magical, ancient Peru." The comparison with Tolkien is already problematic, because no one says The Lord of the Rings is like "magical, ancient Norway" or "magical, ancient England." (Although that would be funny.) Let us say I do write that novel, banking on a marketing tagline of "magical, ancient Peru." That already coasts on an exploitation of Peru as this place of the exotic Other.
Let us say that I, who am not Peruvian, write a really successful novel that is set in this setting inspired by Peru. (In this world where pigs may fly and wishes may come true.) I have already performed this separation. If I fail to use this moment to gesture to actual Peruvian people, to actual Peruvian culture, then I, too, participate in that marginalization. One might hope that in this instance an actual Peruvian writer may be inspired to write their own story—that ten actual Peruvian writers may be inspired to write their own story—and that these get published, rather than me, the non-Peruvian writer, getting acclaim for "drawing attention" to this marginalized culture. It has happened: Robert van Gulik wanted to revive the literary figure Judge Dee, and re-introduce him to a modern audience. Was he Chinese? No: he was an Orientalist (as in, he was a scholar of the Tang Dynasty). He wrote some very successful stories, which inspired Chinese writers to get into writing Judge Dee stories too.
One cannot simply look at one's individual actions—one has to see one's actions in a constellation of actions.
KC: One criticism I've seen of stories about marginalized communities is that often they commodify the lived experiences of those communities for consumption by other communities. What about writing in a way that treats the represented community as the primary audience, and the work as an invitation to engage, be part of the daydream?
JG: That writing should always be under scrutiny and one should be prepared for criticism, nonetheless. Just because you make the invitation, doesn't mean folks should want to go to the party. There is no one universalizing daydream.
KC: OK, on a lighter note, what about those "harem pants" my Indian neighbors gave me? Or the Thai elephant pants my Thai friend sells to people of many cultures at farmer’s markets? When does a cultural exchange become cultural appropriation or misappropriation? Feather earrings are popular again. If you or I stopped in Navajo nation and bought feather earrings there, rather than from a big exploitative commercialized chain that is just "inspired" by Navajo jewelry, are we avoiding cultural appropriation and instead engaging in a positive cultural exchange?
JG: That's not a lighter note: that's a derail, because those are incredibly different situations. One is a situation where you are gifted something; the second you watch your non-white friend make a living; the third you or I are paying for the labour of a marginalized person. There is no one formula that could render all of them the same. They only seem similar because they involve stuff. If your neighbor of colour gave you stuff, wear them to the appropriate places. If your friend wants to sell stuff, more power to her. If you want to give your money to Navajo artists, knock yourself out. Is it a "positive cultural exchange"? You just gave money for some neat stuff—it's still an exchange of cash for goods. Is that "cultural"? Maybe it is for some people, who want to boil culture down to commodities.
To repeat myself, such a line of thought focuses on the individual action, rather than contextualizing the action in a larger system of community relations. A single person selling earrings is not selling culture. A single person buying elephant pants is not buying culture. There is no parity of large-scale representation to be had in this kind of exchange. Cultures are not things you can exchange; cultures are things you observe or experience or live. Cultural appropriation is when we render culture into things that can be exchanged—when we tear asunder systems of belief and invalidate the experiences of a community because we value them less.
KC: Thank you for clarifying that. OK, let's move from intercultural writing to outsiders writing about marginalized identities. I'd like to borrow terminology from Nisi Shawl's and Cynthia Ward's excellent Writing the Other here, and ask you in particular about writers who are of the dominant paradigm for their culture and who want to be respectfully inclusive of the full array of human experience and identities in their writing. Apprentice writers and their mentors are talking about the importance of enabling, promoting, and supporting marginalized voices in telling their own stories. We are hearing about the importance of including well-wrought characters with traditionally marginalized identities in our stories, and in more stories overall. Online articles, conference panels, workshops, and other resources on the matter are encouraging writers to cast their stories with diverse identities while respecting sensitive boundaries, doing extensive research, and engaging sensitivity readers. Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share with us on these matters?
JG: Kwitcher bitchin' and just do the work. I have to research my own heritage with my limited resources—if I walk into a bookstore, it'll probably be easier to find a book on European history (and specific histories too) than it would be to find books on Malaysian history and the Straits Chinese. I have watched my peers work through their anxieties of inauthenticity and representing their own communities—even as they live within the very country they are representing—even as they are, in the words you are using, part of the "dominant paradigm."
(I am actually not crazy about that term—it removes the specificity of the problem from whence it springs. Shawl and Ward are writing from a North American context, within which capitalist cisheteropatriarchal white supremacy is the dominant paradigm. Black and other non-white writers have no problems including white characters who occupy a full range of human experience in their fiction, women have no problems writing a full range of male characters, and so forth—these are relationships which do not go both ways, and that is the problem. We could go into the objections that members of the oppressor class have toward depictions of themselves in the works of the oppressed class, but then one would have to keep in mind the power imbalances of the two classes, which the oppressor class would have us forget, to pretend that it is all an equal playing field. Except if it were, we wouldn't be framing it in terms of dominance and marginalization.)
If you're worried about representing the underrepresented Other, imagine what we have to go through.
KC: That’s an excellent point, and one that often gets left out of these discussions. Basically, writers need to do the work of getting it right.
K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl—along with an array of other teachers—teach online Writing the Other workshops. These are for writers interested in learning how to write the Other well. What advice would you have for students of their workshops, both in writing characters that intersect with some of your identities, and in writing people of different identities in general?
JG: I don't have any advice that hasn't already been said by people smarter and wiser than me, because I'm still trying to figure out how to write my own identities for myself. Check back in ten, twenty, fifty years: maybe I'll have an answer for you then.
KC: In your panel at ICFA in 2016, you said it's a good idea for writers to ask themselves why they want to include characters of different identities then their own in their work. You mentioned that some writers focus on representing marginalized identities in their work for the wrong reasons. What questions should writers be asking themselves as they cast their stories? What would be some common bad reasons to write about marginalized characters? What would be some good reasons?
JG: I've thought a lot about this question of intentionality and reasons for writing. I have had to grapple with some contradictions that arise about this, in terms of purpose and consequence.
I and many other writers and readers of color have, by the power of social media, seen a certain kind of discourse on writing, which I think first became visible in RaceFail ’09 and is now very much more visible with the open dialogue happening, whereby "multiculturalism" is seen as the hot new thing, a new trend. Writers, white writers especially, are writing non-white characters to respond to what they think the "market" wants. The "market" is a nebulous entity that is a source of income, rather than comprised of individuals hungry for representation of themselves in fiction. But we do have to think of the "market" anyway, because these individuals are driving forces that determine how much we get paid. When readers don't come running, writers throw a fit, asking, "what do these people want, anyway?"
There is a more abstract side of this: the cookies. That is to say, the validation. Sometimes a writer is well-meaning and truly understands that there are people who really want to read a multicultural set of characters. But then they write the characters wrong, they receive criticism instead of the praise they expect for responding to this basic need. Then they throw a fit, saying, "we can't get anything right, so why even try!"
There is another set of writers who want the validation of authenticity. These are writers who have lived in a different country or with individuals from a different country, and try to use their knowledge from these environments. However, they don't interrogate their own assumptions enough, and their claims to authenticity fall flat in the face of the execution of the story. Then they throw a fit, crying, "but I was writing what I know, so how dare you question my credentials!"
All of these writers could be coming from a genuine place of love and desire to do well, and have done all the "right" things, and still fail, because that's the nature of writing. As a result, reasons alone are not a very good frame with which to consider the work. They do, however, provide very good motivation for doing the work that needs to be done. Consider the question, "Why do I, a straight woman, want to write queer characters?" The answer "because queer people deserve representation" frames the work in an abstract concept (no less valid). "Because I want to make my queer friends smile" is an answer that frames the work with personal stakes. "Because I want to fill in the gaps in my current oeuvre" is an answer that frames the work in relation to one's current bibliography, and is a valid challenge.
Are there straight up bad reasons? Sure. Something like "I want to take advantage of the current trend for multiculturalism" is a statement that instrumentalizes the concerns of people of colour who want representation. It's not about the humanity of the people seeking themselves in literature and media: it's about making money from this need. The chances that someone does this and writes minority characters well are low. But I don't doubt that there are writers out there who are absolutely mercenary with their writing, and manage to not be horrifically offensive in the execution of their work. (I also believe in fairies, unicorns, and cheap bras that fit perfectly.) It's less from the intentions and more from execution that we're judged. This goes for writers of all backgrounds: it is entirely possible for a writer to write something based in their own culture, their own experience, and misrepresent their community to a public at large with some consequences we'd rather not see.
The response to the result is a signpost of sincerity on one's answers to the question on intention.
KC: So results matter more than intentions? And how a writer responds to criticism of their work is just as important as putting in the effort to do the work right in the first place?
JG: Let me pull out my loudspeaker for just a second: INTENTIONS ARE NOT MAGIC!
And then let me pull up my semaphore flags: I-N-T-E-N-T-I-O-N-S-A-R-E-N-O-T-M-A-G-I-C
KC: As a followup, it sounds like how a writer's work evolves in response to valid criticism from the community they are engaging with is just as important as the quality of their work.
JG: Do you know of Claire Hummel's work? She’s currently best known for her design work in Bioshock: Infinite. She first got fame with a series of "historically-accurate" Disney princesses. She got a lot of flak for her initial work on Pocahontas—that post is probably still floating around on Tumblr, complete with criticizing commentary, and of course the usual defenses. Lots of Native American Tumblr users got on her case, explaining Everything That She Got Wrong.
Claire responded by taking down the image. She could have left it at that and just never put up the Pocahontas picture again. But that means that of the Disney princesses, Pocahontas wasn't worth putting effort into. So she took the feedback, and produced a new version, that visibly took into account the things folks had been saying. It is much less exoticizing as a result, and overall, a stronger piece.
KC: For dominant paradigm writers who are writing steampunk and want to include a wide array of world identities in their work, I'd recommend they start by reading your thesis work online. After that, what advice would you give those determined to better include, empower, and decolonize marginalized people in their own writing, especially steampunk?
JG: Read more writers who include, empower, and decolonize marginalized people in their own writing. Decolonization is a march led by the formerly colonized, and the still colonized.
KC: Readers, please keep in mind that these matters can be exhausting to talk about, and that writers of marginalized identities get asked the same emotionally exhausting questions over and over by novice writers. It's best to read everything a writer has already published about a sensitive issue before you track them down at a con and ask them questions like these.
Coming from that, the next few questions take us into the social element of cons, participating in websites like yours, and other online discussions. In feminist circles, many of us are still learning how to navigate finding out how to educate ourselves on and navigate sensitive matters, and how to do that without taking advantage of or doing harm to other writers who are exhausted from being treated as free emotional and intellectual labor. I've certainly made embarrassing mistakes in learning how to write other people well and be the best ally I can be. What's the best way for aspiring writers to learn more about these sensitive matters in a positive way?
JG: Listening. It sounds glib, but listening really is the best way. And I don't mean in the way of being a passive consumer of someone else's emotional labour in lectures. I mean listening as an action, as an active verb, from which one acts upon the information that one has received. Active listening—as in when you fully concentrate on the other person, understand, and remember what they said, and respond thoughtfully—is a skillset that needs to be carefully developed and practiced.
KC: So, hypothetically, you're at a con, and you've just said something ableist/sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/xenophobic or otherwise marginalizing without meaning to, and someone is kind enough to point it out to you. What is the best reaction? What do you think is the best way to handle embarrassing mistakes?
JG: "Whoops, my bad!" and then—this is key—I don't do it again.
That's it, that’s all. Nobody is interested in a performance of apology. I might buy the person who pointed it out to me a drink or something, but really just a thank-you and demonstrating that I cared about their time by never doing that thing again is more important. Training yourself to refrain from terrible things falling out your mouth is an action that is designed to minimize harm. You may never be acknowledged by not doing the thing, but that is the point.
The bigger a deal you make of it, the more you talk about how guilty you feel, while not necessarily fixing the behavior, the more emotional labour you are demanding to validate you and make you feel better for your mistake, to wash away that embarrassment.
KC: Lots of writers online are talking about "white tears" and how damaging and derailing they can be. Without detracting from the important work being done on this issue and the harm it does, I'd like to back this question out to a more general one. People sometimes have strong emotional reactions to having made a harmful mistake, and, as valid as those emotions may be, the way they deal with their strong emotional reactions has real repercussions on the people around them. Do you think it's possible to speak practically about how to deal with these "I've made a mistake" emotions without dismissing them or blaming the person for having them? If a person feels an emotional response to a mistake they've made, what do you think is the best way to proceed for all parties concerned?
JG: A lot of the problems with white tears have to do with the amount of emotional labour being demanded of people of colour to comfort the white women crying them, rather than the harm being done by the person crying those white tears. And emotional labour is still labour—it's exhausting and I could probably have spent those five minutes more productively watching chinchilla videos for self-care and peace of mind than trying to console a white woman by pretending that no, it's not all that bad, you're not a total failure. Folks need to learn how to deal with their own failure, to really experience and embody it as a problem that affects them and should not have affected another.
It's probably some fucked up holdover from the socialization we have where, as women, we're taught to emotionally manage the bad feelings of the men in our lives who we love. But guess what! We don't have to! We collectively don't have to. The men in our lives are grown adults who will survive learning how to express their emotions in ways that don't burden us. Theoretically, anyway, the men in our lives should be grown adults. Similarly, if you have done a wrong, it's not the end of the world. You will survive learning how to deal with these emotions of having harmed another. It is a general thing where oppressed groups run to manage the feelings of the oppressor groups—that’s part of how oppression works. If you are part of the oppressor group, you can refuse to enact that part of oppression by learning how to handle your own tears, your own guilt, your own feelings.
KC: How about you? Have you ever made an embarrassing social gaffe at a con or a similar environment? Would you be willing to share how you handled it?
JG: I have misgendered friends before. They usually say to me quietly after, "by the way, you keep calling me [that cis pronoun] when it should be [this NB pronoun]." And I say, "augh, my bad," and work on being more conscious about it. Eventually it becomes a habit.
KC: "Augh, my bad," and trying to do better. A practical, manageable methodology for the student-ally.
JG: The point is to get less "augh, my bad" to the point of not having to say it. But, you know, if you do it too often, folks have every right to drop you like a hot potato and never hang out with you at cons, or anywhere, ever again. You've got to learn how to be OK with that. Preferably without turning into that kind of abuser who just fucks up all their social circles and just moves on after doing damage to folks. It has happened that a friend got tired of having to tell me off: she’s blocked me on Tumblr after the nth time I disappointed her (without realizing I did). I'm still trying to not disappoint her, long after she has fallen off my social radar.
KC: Thank you again, Jaymee, for sharing all of this with us. Readers, please be sure to check out Jaymee’s work. On her blog, Jaymee curates a variety of useful content, including her master’s thesis, Chromatic Chronologies, and lots of useful links to those of you new to the topics of this interview.